Weekly News Update on the Americas
Reversing a September 2011 decision by a lower court, on March 8 Argentina's federal Criminal Appeals Court found former Argentine president Carlos Saúl Menem (1989-1999) guilty of "aggravated smuggling" in the government's clandestine sales of 6,500 tons of arms to Ecuador and Croatia from 1991 to 1995. The court also convicted former defense minister Oscar Camilión, former colonel Diego Palleros and nine others in the scheme to smuggle arms to the two countries during a time when international agreements banned the sales. Menem claims he didn't know the ultimate destination of the arms when he signed the three secret decrees authorizing the shipments.
Mexican federal agents arrested Elba Esther Gordillo Morales, president of the 1.5 million-member National Education Workers Union (SNTE), on Feb. 26 in the airport at Toluca, the capital of México state, on corruption charges. According to Attorney General Jesús Murillo Kara, Gordillo used millions of dollars from union funds to buy properties in California, to shop at the Neiman Marcus department store and to pay for plastic surgery. The arrest came one day after President Enrique Peña Nieto signed into law a series of "educational reforms" that include regular teacher assessments and measures that would limit the union's power. Gordillo opposed the new law and didn't attend the signing ceremony.
Judges in Córdoba City, the capital of the central Argentine province of Córdoba, issued an order on Feb. 25 suspending construction of a corn seed-drying plant by the Missouri-based biotech giant Monsanto Company. Provincial Labor Court judges Silvia Díaz and Luis Farías cited potential "environmental risks" as a basis for the suspension, which was in response to an appeal by the Argentine Law Foundation Club. The company plans to build the 27-hectare facility at a cost of $300 million in Malvinas Argentinas, a working-class suburb located 14 km from the provincial capital. Malvinas Argentinas residents are demanding a referendum on the planned construction and have held protest marches, including one on Feb. 21. (La Mañana de Córdoba, Feb. 21; Télam, Argentina, Feb. 25, via Terra.ar; MercoPress, Montevideo, Feb. 27)
After refusing to appear in court three times in a little more than a month, on Feb. 28 former Haitian "president for life" Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier (1971-1986) finally complied with an order to attend an appeals court hearing in Port-au-Prince on possible charges for human rights violations committed during his regime. A number of people filed criminal complaints against Duvalier when he returned to Haiti in 2011, but an investigative judge refused to indict him in January 2012, citing Haiti's 10-year statute of limitations in murder cases. The plaintiffs appealed, and in January of this year a three-member appeals panel agreed to hold a hearing.
A fire swept through a camp for survivors of Haiti's January 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince's eastern Juvénat neighborhood the night of Feb. 16, destroying tents and leaving some 4,000 people without shelter. The inhabitants of the camp, known as Acra 2, were among as many as 350,000 people in southern Haiti who still haven't obtained permanent shelter in the three years since their homes were destroyed or damaged by the quake.
Some 2,500 Puerto Ricans marched on San Juan's Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport on Feb. 24 to protest plans to privatize the facility. "Our airport isn't for sale and isn't for rent" and "Alejandro [García Padilla, the governor], your mom's ashamed of you" were among the marchers' signs. Agents of the US Homeland Security Department arrested one protester, Víctor Domínguez, a member of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico (PNPR), when he attempted to go past barricades that police agents had set up 50 meters from the airport entrance. Protest organizers blamed the police for the confrontation during an otherwise peaceful event, saying the agents violated an agreement to let the marchers go all the way to the entrance. Protest sponsors included the Union of Workers of the Electrical Industry and Circulation (UTIER) Solidarity Program (Prosol), the Brotherhood of Office Employees (HEO) and the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP). (Metro, Guaynabo, Feb. 24)
Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) had plans to foment violence and declare a state of emergency if he lost an Oct. 5, 1988 plebiscite on his regime, according to declassified US documents that the DC-based research group National Security Archive posted on its website on Feb. 22. The plebiscite, mandated by Pinochet's own 1980 Constitution, gave Chileans a choice between voting "yes" to have the general remain president for eight more years or "no" to end the dictatorship and hold an election in 1989. The "no" option won by 54.7% to 43% for "yes"; some 98% of eligible voters participated.
Rights Action, a human rights organization based in Toronto and Washington, DC, released a report on Feb. 20 documenting killings and other abuses carried out since late 2009 during land disputes between campesinos and major landowners in the Lower Aguán Valley in northern Honduras. The 64-page report, "Human Rights Violations by US-backed Honduran Special Forces Unit," finds that soldiers from the Honduran military's 15th Battalion are directly implicated in at least 34 abuses, including "kidnappings, killings, threats, torture and abuse of authority," according to the report's author, Annie Bird.